Reflections from Turkey; 1st Full Day

“God made us different so that we would get to know each other.”

What a true statement, a Muslim proverb relayed at the close of a very impactful day in Istanbul.

The day began simply enough with a fantastic breakfast.  The Hotel buffet had everything we could have wanted, including Turkish eggs which is a dish I love, otherwise known as Shakshukshah.  I had fresh tomato and cucumber, fresh strawberry yogurt, a sesame bagel with white cheese, and a cup of kiwi juice.  Oh, and of course, several cups of coffee.  Turns out, while in Turkey, you DO have to order Turkish coffee.

We boarded the bus and began our day with a bit of sightseeing, driving across the International Bridge which connects one half of Istanbul to the other.  Istanbul is divided in half- one half is on the European continent and the other is in Asia.  We crossed the bridge and quite literally entered another world.

On the other side we met with a group called the Journalist and Writers Foundation.  Committed to forwarding intellectual thought in Turkey and around the world, this group has managed to merge intellectualism with activism (a very, very difficult feat!).  They have departments devoted to women’s rights issues, family issues, politics, culture, media- the whole shebang.  Interestingly, our conversation turned quite serious when we discussed the Turkish ban on Muslim women wearing head scarves.  This concept was quite surprising to our group, considering the large Muslim majority in Turkey (there are 18 synagogues in Turkey, 180 churches in Turkey, and over 2000 mosques!).  But the government and authorities want to keep Turkey a secular country.  So, instead of permitting freedom of choice and running the risk of being overrun by traditional Muslims, they passed a law stating that no Muslim woman can serve in the government or attend university is she wears a scarf.  Our group listened to the discussion and voiced some opinions, but I think we were all too surprised to process it at the time.  In reality, most women wear head scarves in Turkey; so many do, in fact, that one takes note when a woman is NOT wearing one.

From there we went to our fist Mosque, which I will also refer to as a Masjid.  Mosque is the French term, Masjid is the Arabic term.  In an effort to be respectful, I am going to try to adopt the language of my fellow pilgrims.  Anyway, our first Masjid was the Prince Masjid, built in 1541 by Sinam the Architect in order to honor Suleiman the Magnificent.  The building was beautiful; I’ll try to post pics in the coming days.

While there we had a conversation about Muslim prayer- how to do it, what Muslims are saying, and how often Muslims pray the different parts of their worship service.  Mesjid means “place of prostration”, so the majority of the worship service is prostrating oneself before God.  It begins with a call, followed by the worshiper touching his/her ears (as if to say, “I hear the call to prayer.”).  Then one stands with hands held together (if Suni; if Shiite, one’s hands are at the side) and recites, privately, words of scripture.  Another call sends the person to his/her knees, and another call indicates that it is time to prostrate oneself.  This final prostration is called Sajdid and includes 8 points touching the ground- fingers on each hand, forehead, nose, each knee and each toe.  Another call indicates that one can return to his/her knees, and then another call sends one back to Sajdid.  A final call indicates that it is time to stand up.  This entire bit of choreography is called one repetition; each of the five services has a different number of repetitions.

I decided that I would take the opportunity to join my fellow pilgrims in prayer and we had the opportunity at this Mosque.  I did the choreography and went through the entire worship service.  I started with Barchu and touched my ears, I recited words of Torah (specifically verses about pursuing justice from D’varim and the verses in Bereshit indicating that we are all created in God’s image) and then fell to my knees and recited Yotzer (God created the world).  I did the first Sajdid to Ahavah Rabah (God gave us Torah) and the second to Shema.  I rose to my feet at Mi Chamocha, our song of freedom.  The second repetition found me getting the rest of the way through T’filah, and the third and fourth found me finishing the entire service.  A cool moment happened when the call came to fall to our knees when I was reciting “Va-anachnu korim umishtachavim umodim”- we bow before God.

This was a profoundly powerful moment for me.  Not only was I standing shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim men on the trip, but I was doing so in a Mosque.  I imagined myself like some of my Jewish ancestors, compelled to pray by Muslim authorities and, instead of reciting verses of the Korah, silently making their way through a Jewish service.  I also reflected upon the fact that I was not compelled to this action, that it was my choice, and how an act my ancestors were forced to do in a humiliating fashion was one that I could reclaim.  I thanked God for the changing times.

I was also thinking about how strange it was to mark Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in this fashion.  The prayer of longing my ancestors uttered was answered, and my prayer was one of giving thanks.

After leaving the Masjid, I walked in silence with two new friends toward our next stop for a long while.  I eventually asked them what they felt praying in that Masjid and heard their powerful recollection of their thoughts and feelings.  I asked them how they felt standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a non-believer and they remarked how surprised they were that I would step up like I did.  I then shared my own thoughts and feelings.

We went to the grave of Suleiman, housed in a Masjid that is being renovated.  Finding ourselves with some extra time, we took a leisurely lunch and then proceeded to the Rustem Pasha Masjid, known for beautiful blue frescos.  What a sight!

We walked through the world-famous Spice Market and then returned for a group conversation about the day, dinner, and a few of us went back out to enjoy the night-life in Istanbul.

God did indeed make us different so that we would get to know each other.  And now I understand that this is not a pilgrimage to Turkey; it is a pilgrimage to each other.

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Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 10:05 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Rabbi Brad- this post is so moving and absolutely amazing! Safe travels on your trip, looking forward to hearing more!

  2. Dude-you’re in Turkey? Wow! Looking forward to reading more. This was freakin’ cool.
    Love ya!

  3. Brad,

    Thanks for blogging the pilgrimage. I look forward to reading more. Your writing about reclaiming prayer is a powerful image.


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